Open Phone’s Ronnie Higgins: Want to Learn Faster? Be Confidently Ignorant

It's uncomfortable to admit you don't know something. But once you get comfortable with that discomfort, you can learn at twice the speed.

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To learn a new skill, most people start in a state of unconscious incompetence. In this state, you don’t know what you don’t know. The first step toward skill mastery is conscious incompetence—or being aware that you’re not capable of doing something. That step is tough.

Ignorance is bliss. Being aware that you can’t cook or ride a bike or design a content strategy is not. It’s destabilizing and undermining. It makes you second-guess your overall competence.

Ronnie Higgins, director of content at OpenPhone, knows the feeling well. After starting his career in film production, he shifted into content marketing. At fast growing companies like Eventbrite, he had to learn skills that his colleagues had mastered years ago. 

I caught up with Ronnie to discuss his journey to content leadership and why the secret to personal growth is embracing ignorance and discomfort.

You spent the early years of your career shooting films and TV shows. How did you develop your marketing skills?

Being confidently ignorant. I remember in one of my first meetings at Eventbrite, I had to ask what an MQL was. We didn't do MQLs at Intrax, the company I worked at previously. After the meeting, I followed up and asked more questions.

Being confidently ignorant.

Usually, I got the gist because I knew concepts, but not the names. Much earlier in my life, I used to throw raves. Everything I was doing to promote club nights back then is the same stuff marketers are doing today.

Was it tough to put your hand up and say, “I don’t understand this stuff”?

It wasn't tough to ask stupid questions, but internally I had bad impostor syndrome. I felt it most when I started at Eventbrite. While I worked with really good marketers at Intrax, it wasn’t the same. It was a 30-year-old company that didn't need to grow as fast. It wasn’t gunning for an IPO. When I joined Eventbrite, it felt like I was drinking from the firehose.

I realized I had a big knowledge gap. Even though I was confident about learning, I didn’t feel like the people who showed up already knowing things.

Internally, I had bad impostor syndrome.

One of the people I reported to was Margaret Jones. I’d been learning about content marketing from her when she was at Marketo. It was HubSpot and Marketo championing content marketing. Feeling like I was gonna get found out and tossed aside was the hardest part of it. Eventually, I worked my way through.

Marketing’s a broad discipline. Did any specific skill or specialism leave you unstuck?

Marketing came to me intuitively. It’s all psychology and I had to learn so much psychology to understand film production. Film is essentially an emotion simulator. 

I understood how to craft a message and tell a story. I could apply those storytelling skills to marketing. I was thinking of the customer as my protagonist. All of those things came so naturally to me that I didn't need to think too much. It at all made sense. The only thing was realizing concepts have new names and three-letter acronyms.

If there was anything I needed to wrap my head around, it was writing. So many people in content marketing talk about writing a novel when they were eight or going to journalism school. I wasn't a prolific writer. Everything I had been taught was visual. Even though people were talking about video, most content marketing was still written.

I’ve heard you speak about your group of friends and connections who provide feedback on your work. How did you develop those relationships?

You have to ask for it. It’s easy to get positive feedback when someone loves something, but you need to invite constructive criticism. Recently, I created a workshop on how to think like a media company. I was trying to turn all my thoughts and perspectives into something concrete that I could deliver to the world.

You need to invite constructive criticism.

Every time I tried to write down ideas, I ended up on a weird Mobius strip. My thoughts would loop back to where they started. I couldn't find the hierarchy in my messaging.

I spent multiple meetings testing ideas with people like Mark Thomas from Powered by Search, Amanda Natividad from Spark Toro, and Tommy Walker at Content Studio. I had to proactively ask for feedback and schedule time with them, too. I asked them what made sense and what resonated. I told them, “Tell me where this sounds like bullshit. Tell me where this sounds utterly confusing.”

Perspectives is a weekly series interviewing the best marketing leaders. Subscribe for interviews straight to your inbox.

David is a former craft beer journalist turned writer and digital strategist. He now helps ambitious technology brands tell narrative-driven stories.

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